FATA’s choice

The KP-FATA merger is a historic moment that took a long time coming, writes Nizamuddin Salarzai

FATA’s choice
Seventy years after the creation of Pakistan, more than 50 million of its second class citizens have been upgraded to first class. The people of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have been granted rights enshrined by the Constitution upon its people, and then some. This has happened in the form of the 31st constitutional amendment passed by the parliament a week before it packs up and through an endorsement by the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa assembly a day before it was dissolved. Finding the consensus and the will to pull this off in the midst of national political turmoil was no small feat but things did not seem so glorious only one month ago.

Demands for the rights for the people of FATA have echoed in the parliament since 1997, when Abdul Latif Afridi, then a national assembly member from Khyber Agency, translated the draconian Frontiers Crimes Regulation (FCR) into Urdu for ease of understanding of fellow parliamentarians as well as the general public. Unfortunately, thanks to powerful forces with vested interests in the region, these voices were not heard. After all, FATA provided a fertile ground for illegal drug trade and training camps for the Mujahideen of the Afghan War and later, the War on Terror. In this process, Pakistan created a FATA secretariat, Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) and many other government bodies that have done nothing but drain billions of dollars meant for the betterment of the people of FATA, without any accountability.

After the 2013 general elections, a group of FATA parliamentarians submitted a bill for approval in the National Assembly Secretariat, demanding abolishment of Article 247 of the Constitution - the article that enslaves economic, governance, judicial and executive affairs of FATA to a presidential order. The bill might not have seen light of day were it not for Sardar Ayaz Sadiq's disqualification, re-election and re-run for the office of speaker of National Assembly. It so happened that parliamentarians of FATA pitched their own candidate for speakership. During negotiations, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leadership assured parliamentarians from FATA the bill for reforms would be revisited and established a committee headed by then foreign minister Sartaj Aziz in return for votes in favor of Sadiq.
The bill might not have seen light of day were it not for Sardar Ayaz Sadiq's disqualification, re-election and re-run for the office of speaker of National Assembly

After consultations with parliamentarians, the committee had a few options to choose for reforms in FCR - something that had been done 14 times in the past with no results. There was debate on the merits of an elected council - much like that in Gilgit-Baltistan - over autonomy under the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa governor. They discussed a separate province and then, a complete merger with Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KP). To address the confusion, the committee visited all tribal agencies to meet representatives of political parties, youth, traders as well as elders of these areas. Meanwhile, the FATA Research Centre (FRC) carried out an independent survey in the Tribal Areas. The findings of both the committee and the FRC had similar results. An overwhelming majority of the population wanted merger with KP.

There were many reasons for this choice. Many affairs of the Tribal Areas were already managed by KP. The governor was the chief executive of KP and the FATA secretariat operated under an additional chief secretary whose boss was the chief secretary of KP. All the line departments of FATA were run by officers from line departments of KP, most bureaucrats deployed in FATA were from the provincial administrative cadre of KP. Even the electricity in FATA did not come from the national grid, but instead from the Peshawar Electric Supply Corporation (PESCO). Students of FATA sought higher education and employment in KP and the businessmen of FATA were already running successful ventures in this province. There was greater affinity with the customs, traditions, language and history of KP.

Just when the government seemed to have done it all, it was faced with two problems. First, a sudden opposition of the reforms process by allies and second, opposition of the merger with KP within the PML-N. It so happens that the most influential and powerful lobby within the PML-N's KP chapter is the lobby from Hazara division. Led by former governor Sardar Mehtab Abbasi, the Hazara leadership of the PML-N was of the opinion that not only will the merger turn the Hindko-speaking community into an ethnic minority within the province but also a political minority within the party. How else can one get a chief minister elected multiple times from a Hindko-speaking region to govern a province that is almost 85 percent Pashtun? Not to mention the rest of perks and privileges like, the seat of governor, the chairmanship of Pakistan International Airlines, the deputy speakership of the National Assembly and the coordination of Sustainable Development Goals in provincial and national constituencies.

As far as the government allies were concerned, Mehmud Khan Achakzai was of the opinion that the tribes of FATA were autonomous. FATA was not a part of British India and so Pakistan could not have inherited it from the former. In order to make the tribes a part of Pakistan, or anywhere else for that matter, a referendum was needed. In plain words, as per his speech in the National Assembly, FATA was not a part of Pakistan and hence, Pakistan had no right to merge it with one of its federating units. Let us not forget that Mehmud Khan's party Pahtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP) has been contesting elections in FATA under rules set by the same Election Commission of Pakistan that oversees electioneering in the rest of the country and in 2013, the total vote count in its favor was a little below 300.

Maulana Fazalur Rehman is fighting a completely different battle. His party is facing political redundancy as a result of better education and declining militancy figures. On one hand, his party cannot do well in the rapidly-expanding urban areas of KP and on the other, many of his seminaries were reportedly shut down in agencies of Tribal Areas for their alleged involvement with terrorist outfits. A party that once had nine out of 12 FATA MNAs, now only has one representative from FATA in the parliament. While he enjoys a close relationship with the PML-N in centre, it was his party in Balochistan that played a vital role in toppling the PML-N-led government, losing a great deal of political favour. In such a situation, Rehman sees a separate province as a perfect ground for resurrecting his party. After all, FATA has high poverty rates and is prone to religious extremism.

The biggest hurdle in the way of reforms was the Ministry of SAFRON and its child, the FATA secretariat. No stone was left unturned by the two bodies to delay the process as much as possible. Where else would you find a place to dispense development funds worth Rs92 billion in the shadiest ways possible? As the federal government's time comes to an end, I can say with conviction that due to the secretariat's policies, it could not build a single primary school in a combined area of eight districts where existing schools had been blown up by militants. Only in FATA it would go unnoticed that there exist government schools where two uneducated and overpaid teachers teach 1,200 students in two rooms - each day, every day!

Finally, sense has prevailed. We are beyond all that. The moment Article 247 is abolished, FATA will become an integral part of KP and a responsibility of the provincial government. One hope it does not get the same treatment at their hands at it did in the hands of the federal government for decades.

The writer is a political activist from former FATA.

Twitter: @Salarzai_

Email: nk.salarzai@gmail.com